Elayne Whyte Gómez, president of the negotiating conference for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Elayne Whyte Gómez, president of the negotiating conference for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Credit: Office for Disarmament Affairs / United Nations Credit: Office for Disarmament Affairs / United Nations

This year marks the seventy-eighth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs directly caused the deaths of an estimated 110,000 – 210,000 people. While significant, that number does not do justice to the long-lasting consequences for those who were beneath the mushroom cloud. 

Their suffering has spanned generations. The impacts of the blast resulted in short-term injuries combined with longer-term impacts – illnesses, radiation sickness, cancers, birth defects, and the social stigma surrounding survivors. 

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came in 2017, in light of the suffering these weapons cause, and wariness as global tensions rise. The TPNW places the humanitarian, environmental and discriminatory impact of nuclear weapons at the forefront, shifting the discussion surrounding nuclear weapons. 

This treaty is one of the best hopes for working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Addressing the old treaty’s failures 

The TPNW recognizes the devastation caused by the more than 2000 nuclear weapon tests that took place across the world, including in the Pacific Islands and Kazakhstan. Such tests have increased levels of cancer in nearby communities, left entire islands vaporized, displaced people, and cut them off from their cultures and livelihoods. 

Those tests also aided in the weapons’ development – the estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons still in the world today are at most 3,300 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. 

Nuclear weapon states are required to disarm and eliminate their nuclear arsenals as members of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But they have continuously avoided doing so. This has allowed for the threat of nuclear war to persist as world tensions grow, and global cooperation becomes ever more fragile.

Dissatisfaction with that lack of action is what led to the TPNW. It was created to complement the NPT, to create further action on disarmament, and to fill some of the gaping holes in the NPT’s framework. 

The treaty places a special focus on the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on women and Indigenous peoples. It also recognizes the need for their representation in decision-making processes. This makes the TPNW the first international treaty to acknowledge the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on women. This puts it perfectly in line with the feminist foreign policy that many countries, such as Canada and France, are said to have.

The discourse surrounding nuclear weapons and militarism in general is often gendered – weapons and increased militarism are framed as masculine and strong, while disarmament is framed as feminine and weak. This has limited action on disarmament and, instead, has led to drawing battle lines between countries, and continued development of nuclear weapons.

The Treaty’s current status

As of now, the humanitarian aspect of the TPNW has continued through the first meeting of state parties and the resulting Vienna Declaration and Action Plan. 

States have committed to a number of proactive actions, like directly communicating with affected communities, establishing an international trust fund, and ensuring inclusivity. They have also agreed to create informal working groups focusing on the different articles of the treaty, some of which include: universalization, victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation and assistance.

These steps bring non-nuclear weapon states much closer towards seeking remedies for the damage done by nuclear weapons. They have also enabled states to start stigmatizing and de-legitimizing nuclear weapons—pinning them as the weapons of mass destruction that they are. As the treaty’s list of 92 signatories and 68 ratifications grows, so too will this stigma.

This humanitarian approach offers the chance to refocus the view of nuclear weapons based on the detrimental health and environmental impact they have. 

It also serves to counteract the theory of nuclear deterrence – that if one country has nuclear weapons, no one will attack them for fear of nuclear retaliation. Many countries rely on nuclear deterrence, including those who form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Nuclear deterrence theory, however, also allows nuclear arms to exist in the first place. As such, it opens the possibility for nuclear arms to be used due to intent, miscalculation, misunderstanding, or accident.

Public speaks out as Canada refuses to sign

As a member of NATO, Canada has also relied on nuclear deterrence – refusing to sign or engage with the TPNW. Despite this refusal, 74 per cent of Canadians support Canada joining the TPNW according to a poll done by Nanos Research in 2021. It is time for Canada to take leadership to work towards nuclear disarmament for the safety of every living thing on this planet.

Across Canada, various organizations and individuals have called on the Canadian government to take action on the disarmament of nuclear weapons. 

Recently, the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Canada (WILPF) partnered with World Beyond War Canada and the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute on an online letter campaign. It calls on the Trudeau government to sign the TPNW and send a delegation to the second meeting of state parties for the TPNW. 

The letter stands as a way to show the government that Canadians across the country care about this issue and are demanding action. Those organizations also launched a 2-page fact sheet entitled “The Need for Disarmament: Canada, NATO and the Threat of Nuclear Weapons.” 

Now is the time to act

As we reach the 78th year since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is more important than ever that we remember why these weapons can never be used again. The hibakusha – those who survived the atomic bombings and nuclear testing – are passing on. 

As we lose the hibakusha, we also lose their stories and experiences of the devastation these bombs caused. Forced to watch as nuclear weapon stockpiles skyrocket and become more powerful, they know, more than anyone, the danger those weapons will always pose as long as they exist.

We are not living in a time when leaders can simply hope that a nuclear war doesn’t break out.  States are threatening to use nuclear weapons, and tensions between nuclear weapon states are rising. Canada must join the TPNW to prevent a catastrophe from which there can be no return.

To find out more information, please visit vowpeace.org.

Sarah Rohleder

Sarah Rohleder is a peace campaigner with the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace and a student at the University of British Columbia. She is also a youth coordinator for Reverse the Trend Canada and youth advisor...